Where standards are high they can rise even further. But the rewards can be greater for raising them where they remain low

Airline safety figures continue to improve, but the improvement rate is slowing down. Certainly part of the slowdown is the result of the law of diminishing returns. Is there anything left, then, for the commercial air transport industry to do to make safety better without the need to invest big money for small returns?

Plenty. Where safety is already very good - like in the USA - the industry is still working with the Federal Aviation Administration to refine safety strategies to produce further improvement. Last year the USA lost a Bombardier CRJ100ER with 50 people on board because the crew mistakenly tried to take off from the wrong runway - which was too short. Only one person survived. It happened early in the morning when the airport was not busy, and the weather conditions were benign. The USA - although it is not alone in this respect - still has definite problems with its runway safety, despite the fact that it recognised the issue and began an awareness and education programme to improve the situation nearly 10 years ago.

Apart from the CRJ accident, there were at least four other runway incidents in the USA last year, any one of which could have ended in disaster (see safety review tables). And this is happening in a country in which the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) set out 10 years ago to identify the accident categories that posed the greatest risks and develop remedies. They did that, and although they did not hit their target of reducing the USA's commercial fatal accident rate by 80% in 10 years, their achievement of reducing it by 63% when it was already good is impressive.

So the USA has picked its "low-hanging safety fruit", but it has still refused to give up and is now refining its techniques for dealing with the risks that remain.

The task the world faces now is that of helping the weaker economies of the world raise their safety standards. In many African nations - the International Air Transport Association names the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Swaziland as particularly bad examples - the first targets to attack are poor governance, non-existent safety oversight and primitive infrastructure. It is pointless sowing the seeds of a safety culture in such an environment because they would not take root.

Nigeria, which has suffered three mainline jet accidents in the past 18 months, is tilling the soil to enable a safety culture to flower, by making its civil aviation authority truly autonomous, giving it executive power, and providing it with the means to finance the expertise it needs. The agencies that look after air traffic control, airports and meteorological services are also receiving backing in their work. Nigeria has the potential to become an aviation safety role model for the continent. If, in that process, Nigeria's renewed airlines stimulate the country's economy and bring its people a better quality of life, the message that safety brings credibility and prosperity may persuade other nations to take the same road.

Source: Flight International